Over 2.8 million Jeep Cherokee XJs were sold during an 18-year production run, yet to many of us, their presence often goes unnoticed because of their ubiquitous, functional shape blends into the surroundings. But the Cherokee’s unpretentious appearance belies its importance in the automotive world. The Cherokee was the first midsized SUV crossover and it set the standard for all such SUVs to come. It has been called “possibly the best SUV shape of all time” and “one of the 20 greatest cars of all time” by design experts. Despite being produced by three different car companies, the design was so pure it remained remarkably unchanged throughout its life.
American Motors Creates an Icon
The origins of the Cherokee XJ date back to 1978, with engineers from AMC providing the mechanical input and a team headed by AMC vice president of design Richard Teague giving the Cherokee its styling identity. It was the first nonmilitary 4×4 having unibody construction with an integral ladder-boxed frame to enhance the Cherokee’s durability and off-road capabilities. Scheduled for production and introduction in late 1983 as a 1984 model, the Cherokee was offered in both two-door and four-door models, giving it a significant advantage over the Ford Bronco II and the Chevy S-10 Blazer, the Cherokee’s midsize SUV competition, which then offered only two-door models.
Initially offered with a standard AMC 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine or an optional 2.8 liter V6 sourced from General Motors, the Cherokee’s performance was handicapped by the lack of power from these engines. It wasn’t until 1987 that the Cherokee received an engine worthy of its durable body and capable suspension, the 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, and sales took off. Cherokee sales jumped from 107,225 units in 1986 to 139,295 in 1987 and kept right on going, topping out at 207,216 Cherokees sold in 1989, an increase of 93% over 1986 – the icon was on its way! With a relatively light curb weight of around 3,000 pounds for the four-door, the 177 horsepower 4.0-liter engine with the standard five-speed manual transmission or the optional 4-speed automatic gave the Cherokee contemporary performance to keep up with the crowd.
Cherokee’s Pure Design Is Timeless
A remarkable tribute to Richard Teague’s design team is the fact that only minor changes were made to Teague’s original design throughout the Cherokee’s 18-year production run. This is even more amazing when one considers that automobile manufacturers are notorious for adhering to the “Not Invented Here” syndrome and generally refuse to accept designs or inventions from others outside of the company without significant changes. Yet the Cherokee was made by three different manufacturers – AMC, Chrysler, and DaimlerChrysler – with only minor updates. Noted automotive designer and journalist Robert Cumberford perhaps said it best: “Great designs never grow old, a truth no better confirmed than by designer Dick Teague’s masterpiece, the Jeep Cherokee.”
Mr. Cumberford was not the only one to appreciate the greatness of the Cherokee. British TV motoring expert Quentin Wilson described the XJ as, “A real 4×4 icon” and one of the “Few truly great cars… cars which become more relevant the older they get.” Kiplinger in 2011 selected the Cherokee XJ as, “One of the 10 cars that refuse to die.” In 1984 the Cherokee broke new ground in the media by being the first vehicle to be named “4×4 of the Year” by all three leading off-road magazines: 4 Wheel & Off-Road; Four Wheeler; and Off-Road. The Cherokee also found itself selected as number four in Popular Mechanics’ “25 Greatest Boxy Cars of All Time” in 2015, 14 years after production ceased, proving that, at least with SUVs, it’s hip to be square.
With all the expert recognition and awards, the Cherokee has garnered, has it now become a collectible crossover SUV? The collector car market is as hard to predict as picking a winner in the stock market, but a quick glance gives us a few factors to indicate that it may indeed be a collectible. One factor is that other old SUVs, such as Land Rover Defenders, Toyota Land Cruisers, and Jeep Wagoneers are increasing in value. Factors unique to the XJ that increase its value include: its boxy styling, which makes it instantly identifiable as a vehicle from another era; millions of us grew up with an XJ in the family and to many, it represents happy childhood memories; the 4.0-liter engine is virtually bulletproof and reliable despite lots of miles; and the Cherokee is still practical with lots of cargo room – 71 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down. One true indicator of the XJ’s collectability is that it is getting harder and harder to find good ones for sale, and the good ones are selling quickly for higher prices.
Cherokee XJ Rebuilders
The last new Jeep Cherokee XJ rolled off the assembly line in May of 2001. If you’re in the market for what the Cherokee XJ has to offer, do the math and you’ll realize that the absolute newest used Cherokee XJ you will find is now over 16 years old. Granted, the Cherokee has a reputation for being almost indestructible, but still, a 16-year-old SUV that has been flogged during its life probably won’t present a very pretty picture, especially if you want to do some serious traveling or some cutting-edge off-roading. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you can’t chance something breaking down and leaving you and your family stranded.
If you’re a potential buyer and your ideal SUV is a brand-spanking-new Jeep Cherokee XJ, as they said in Ghostbusters, “Who ya gonna call?” Well, if you punch “Cherokee XJ rebuilders” into your favorite search engine, chances are Davis AutoSports (DAS) will be at or near the top of the list. DAS is a combination licensed and bonded car dealer, a performance shop, and restoration facility specializing in restored or fully-built Cherokee XJs, custom diesel trucks, and, for a little icing on the cake, 1000 horsepower supercars. Located in Richmond, Virginia adjacent to Richmond International Airport, DAS sells vehicles across the United States and around the world.
Their work on XJs ranges from finding low-mileage originals to fully custom-built and modified XJs to full nut and bolt show-quality restored Cherokees. If you want what may be the ultimate XJ, DAS is currently building three Alpha XJs, all having full GM LS 5.3 liter, 6.0 liter, or 6.2-liter V8 engine and transmission conversions, and DAS custom four-link rear suspension systems. Check their website for more information and a few images of some truly badass XJs. We’d like to give Jonathan Davis a big “Thank You” for letting us use a few photos of DAS XJs.
Auto Trader: https://www.autotrader.com/car-news/jeep-cherokee-xj-the-next-highly-collectible-old-suv-263118?rinno=1
Cherokee Forum: https://www.cherokeeforum.com/f59/how-many-xjs-were-built-each-year-72136/
Davis AutoSports: http://davisautosports.com/
Popular Mechanics: http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/g891/the-box-rocks-10-cars-hip-to-be-square/?slide=4
Photos by: CZmarlin (1,2, 3, 5), Ryder267, Rafi B., Tennen-Gas, David AutoSports